The Union Democrat
Tragedy and journalism in a small town: Oxford newspaper treads lightly as it covers mass shooting
OXFORD, Mich. — Under different circumstances, reporter James Hanlon would have attended the Soup & Sweet Stroll on Dec. 3, bantering with residents as they visited downtown restaurants before the lighting of the village Christmas tree.
Instead, he went to a vigil for a tragedy so horrific it swamped downtown with mourners.
Hanlon, who would have been welcomed at the former, wasn't wanted at the latter.
His job was to bear witness at a time the town craved privacy. Four students at Oxford High School were fatally shot and seven other people wounded a few days earlier. A fellow student was charged in the shooting.
Journalists began showing up in the small community. Most were mindful of the sadness surrounding them as they described the horrific event and its aftermath.
For Hanlon, the balancing act of covering a tragedy is especially precarious because he works for the local newspaper, the Oxford Leader.
His relationship with the town is more intimate than the relations of other press. The victims weren't strangers. Most had appeared in the weekly paper for academic or athletic exploits.
The Leader has always been equal parts civic chronicler and local supporter. With the mass shooting, however, it changed from booster to interloper. After a death in the family, the family had turned against it.
“We definitely give people their space,” Hanlon said. “We respect their privacy as much as we can.”
Hanlon, 29, one of two reporters at the Leader, joined the paper two years ago. It's his first job in journalism.
He covers many beats but none bigger than education. The schools account for half the stories in the paper, he said. One of the Leader's goals is to get every single student into the paper before he or she graduates.
Hanlon has made several dozen visits to the high school, with its towering glass façade and blue football field.
Several weeks before the shooting, he watched a dress rehearsal by the theater department. Kids were staging a play about a 1940s' radio broadcast of “It's a Wonderful Life.”
Hanlon also has written about students away from school. In July, he interviewed Kylie Ossege, who was injured in the shooting. The story described how she competed at equestrian events at the Oakland County Fair.
Learning that Ossege was one of the victims made the tragedy more personal.
“It made it that much more real, that much closer to home,” Hanlon said.
On Nov. 30, Dean Vaglia, the paper's other reporter, interviewed the village police chief about a gas station charged with selling liquor to minors.
He then went home to let his Schnoodle puppy out and heat up a cup of macaroni and cheese. He planned to cover a high school basketball game that night.
At 1:04 p.m., he received a text from his editor saying a fleet of police cars and ambulances had just raced past the newspaper office on Michigan Highway 24. Someone on social media counted 14 vehicles. The editor didn't know where they were going or why.
The most police cars Vaglia said he ever saw at an incident were three. He ran upstairs to swap the cameras in his bag before flying out the door.
Vaglia, 22, who graduated from Oakland University in April, had been a reporter for five months.
“This is the biggest story that will ever happen to us. I can't see a bigger one,” he said.
One reason journalists cover tragedy is for the story behind it. Reporting helps people understand why the events occurred and, maybe, how they could be preventedin the future. It also could bolster financial and other support for the victims.
But Oxford and its 3,600 residents aren't preoccupied with journalistic ideals. They are hurting and protective of their neighbors. The town nicknamed the Gravel Capital of the World is in rubble.
Some residents were upset that news cameras were at a vigil in nearby Lake Orion even though they were allowed by the church hosting the event. Others were angry with TV reporters using the school as a backdrop while filing live reports.
Don Rush, assistant publisher, Sherman Publications and the Oxford Leader, works on the layout of the Oxford Leader from his office. He said he went into one shop to protest the posting of a “Media Free Zone” sign. “As a local business, I hope we're still welcome,” Rush said.
Six days after the shooting, Don Rush, assistant publisher of the Leader, went downtown to get a cup of coffee.
The windows of nearly every shop had signs that read “Pray for Oxford” or “Proud to be Oxford Strong.” A Christmas tree in the small downtown park turned into a memorial. Beneath the tree weren't presents but flowers.
Outside a coffee shop, Rush spotted a sign entitled “Media Free Zone.” It said any journalist who entered the shop would be charged with trespassing and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
The nonplussed journalist walked into the shop. He told the merchant that among the press she was prohibiting was the local newspaper.
“I understand the perception of the media, but I took it personally,” Rush told The Detroit News. “As a local business, I hope we're still welcome.”
Rush, 58, also has read comments on social media where people described how they had told journalists they weren't welcomed. He said the anger is part of the grieving process but, still, it stung.
Joining the Leader as a reporter in 1985, he has been coming downtown for 36 years.
Rush said he enjoyed visiting barber Stub Robinson once or twice a week. The late Robinson, who doubled as town historian, kept a journal by the cash register that contained the writings of his father and grandfather.
The barber loved to talk about the time he got caught swimming naked in the new baptismal pool at the Methodist Church.
Nearly four decades later, everyone knows Rush. They know where he eats, what he drives, even his cellphone number, he said.
In the days after the shooting, his phone hummed steadily with calls and texts. People wanted to know how they could help. Organizations asked him to spread the word about their fundraising efforts.
“I'm trying to talk to everybody who reaches out to me,” he said. “I'm trying to be the level, keep-calm guy.”
The newspaper, whose circulation is 1,600, has been around a lot longer than Rush. Founded in 1898, it has been a stolid citizen of Oxford for 123 years.
Every fall, it dutifully reported about the Scarecrow Festival. In the summer, it wrote about the Lone Ranger Parade and Festival.
Rush described it thusly in a column last year:
“One hundred and twenty-two years of births and deaths, jubilant celebrations and tragic events, love and loss, sorrows and the joy shared by families and businesses who have come and gone.”
On the day after the shooting, the Leader held its weekly planning meeting, where staff discussed what it would report during the following week.
Outside the corrugated steel building was a lawn sign exhorting the high school football team: “Wildcat Pride/ The Leader/ Go Cats.”
Rush, who has been the editor since the last one left two years ago, told his two young reporters what he expected from them.
After all the other journalists leave town, the Leader will still be here, he said. The paper needed to cover the tragedy with compassion, empathy and respect.
Part of the paper's responsibility is to help the community heal, move forward, he said.
“Everyone is on edge. Everyone is still holding their breath,” Rush told The News. “We just have to be a little more caring.”
A week later, a hearse bringing the body of one of the shooting victims to a funeral home was escorted by seven police vehicles with their lights flashing. A Leader photographer snapped a photo as the procession passed the newspaper office.
The victim's family didn't mind media coverage, but Rush didn't run the photo. He didn't see the point.
“What purpose would that serve our readers? It might be too much,” he said. “But I've seen funeral services online and the procession on TV, so I don't know.”
Even as it struggles to get its arms around the shooting, the Leader continues to cover other types of news for its website and weekly print edition supported by subscriptions.
During a long week, Vaglia wrote about the police and a vacancy on the Oxford Township Board of Trustees.
But he said the tragedy haunts every story he does, as omnipresent as the blue-and-gold ribbons around downtown utility poles.
“We have this massive event hanging over everything else,” he said. “This never came up in journalism classes.”
The Leader has stayed away from the funerals and more private vigils related to the shooting.
Instead of contacting people who knew the victims, the weekly ran an ad asking anyone who wanted to share memories to send them to the paper by mail or email.
Even if someone wants to talk about the tragedy, Vaglia is uncomfortable asking questions.
For a story about the village police department's response to the shooting, the reporter told Chief Mike Solwold he was just going to turn on his recorder and let Solwold say whatever he wanted.
Some residents grieving over the high school shooting tragedy have turned against the media, including the small staff at the Oxford Leader. The newspaper with a weekly circulation of 1,600 has been around since 1898.
Given the severity of the shooting, Vaglia thinks questions may be too intrusive.
“Is there a level of crassness to asking them? Yes, to a degree,” he said. “Nobody wants to be interrogated. No one wants to relive the trauma.”
With Vaglia's age and relative proximity to his high school years, Rush asked him to write a column about the shooting.
Vaglia was born a week after a dozen students were murdered at Columbine High School in Colorado. As a student, he constantly worried about the possibility of a mass shooting.
He memorized the exits at pep rallies and kept a wary eye on students who seemed different from everybody else, he wrote.
He never experienced such a tragedy, he told The News. If he had, he wouldn't have discussed it with a reporter.
“They aren't necessarily looking to relive the moment,” Vaglia said about students and teachers. “They want to get past it. They and everyone else want to get back to normal. Ultimately, we need to give them space to grieve, find whatever normalcy they can.”